Taboo Socialism

In 1949, Albert Einstein published an essay in the May issue of Monthly Review entitled “Why Socialism?”. The following is my take on what he said. His essay can be found on the Web at “http://www.monthlyreview.org/598einst.htm”. I strongly recommend you read it. Your take might not be exactly the same as mine.

Now, as then, the terrible and subversive topic of socialism is “under a powerful taboo”. I agree with Einstein; we need to break this taboo.

He said it is important we express our views even if we are not experts in economics, science, philosophy, etc. I am taking him to heart here and now.

Economics, he said, is such a messy topic that it cannot be studied with rigor like other fields of science. Socialism is more an end than a means. While engineering, math and science might help us find a better way to an end, there is nothing they can really say about whether socialism should be our goal. We each will have to study, think, discuss with each other and come to our conclusions as best we can. As for myself, I have decided to abandon capitalism for socialism and to promote this decision. It is gratifying to know that a mind the caliber of Einstein’s would concur.

Einstein believed we are in a cultural crisis that is ultimately rooted in a self-contradiction in what it means to be a human being. Within each individual are conflicting needs. We need to both stand apart and stand together with others.

Our sense of freedom demands we go our own way. But the reality is that we cannot do without others. Somehow we came to see our individual interests as in conflict with the interests of society. Calm reflection tells us we are all in the same boat, but we still seem to need to assert ourselves over everyone else. How does this come about?

Is this internal conflict natural, from the time of birth, or is it something we learn from growing up in a culture devoted to greed and competition?

Einstein said there are no easy answers but for the sake of inner equilibrium we must try to orchestrate the demands of our contradictory nature. Unless a solution is found, a person cannot contribute significantly to society’s well-being.

In the development of solutions, we must hold faith that “nurture” can trump “nature”. We have memory and communication abilities that allow us to take charge of our development.

Anthropology has shown that cultural patterns are not fixed. We can choose our culture if we only will. Thinking and wanting can help determine what we will become, unlike ants and bees which are fixed in their cultures. This is a job for our imagination.

However, he said, while we may adjust some things to enhance life, some things that used to be possible will never be possible again. Man will never again be able to choose self-sufficiency as an individual or small group. To sustain the population level, we must continue to use the technologies that allowed the population to grow this large. We must continue to use extreme division of labor and large scale production if we are to satisfy our material needs. This must be done even in a socialist culture. Whatever else is possible, a global network of production and consumption must continue.

The root of our problems today, the source of evil, is the economic anarchy of capitalism. Workers are not paid based on the value of what they produce. They are paid only enough to keep them engaged to the process. The difference in value is taken by the owners of the means of production. This makes a parasite of the owner and a slave of the worker. Wealth accumulates to the few and the many are impoverished.

The intense concentration of wealth in a few hands nullifies democracy by corrupting the government, the press and the educational system. Competition, profit motive, and technological advancement keeps too many people unemployed. Selfish use of capital for the short term causes instability in the system which then cycles through periods of overproduction and underproduction; boom and bust.

Einstein said the worst evil of capitalism is the crippling of individuals. This comes early in life by an educational system geared to stress greed and competition above all else.

The only cure Einstein could see is a planned socialist economy and an educational system emphasizing social skills.

He cautioned, however, that a planned economy is not the same as socialism. True socialism is achieved only through the liberation of the individual. He said we must carefully avoid the centralization of power, whether it is based on government or business.

That is my take on Einstein’s essay.

I agree with most of it, but I wonder about the need to keep extreme division of labor, the current level of technology and a world-scale productive network. Our population, even larger now than when Einstein wrote, may already have passed a level that can be sustained even with the continued use of big and complicated production. These techniques have only worked in the short run by cheating in the accounting of all the costs to the environment and non-renewable resources. We may be on the verge of a very hard limit. On this I certainly hope I am wrong.

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